The English Concert, with David Daniels, March 24, 2009 at Disney Hall in Los Angeles
Lovely, lovely concert. I wouldn’t call it utterly perfect, but this is live music we’re talking about, and a minor unusual moment or two is not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps the audience aware that they are listening to something as it happens and not tapping the screen on an ipod to hear something that sounds exactly the same as the last twenty times they heard it.
I’ll admit that the Handel is more to my taste than Bach, although there is never anything wrong with Bach. The emotion and intensity in his choral music surprised me, as his instrumental music has an (undeserved) reputation for being intellectual and hence cold. Why those two things are always polarized, I have no idea, but there you have it.
At any rate, I’m thrilled to have been exposed live to Bach’s choral works, and by such a stellar voice as David Daniels. The English Concert themselves were also magnificent, and I don’t want to stint on them; the richness and texture of their music was glorious; there is such a thrill in closing one’s eyes in anticipation of the first few notes and being stunned at the living quality of something being performed before you, hearing the immediacy of it.
But the nature of the voice is such that a good one will almost always take precedence in the ears of the audience over almost any instrument, no matter how skillfully played. And Daniels was wonderful, of course. His voice is very rounded and floral and impossible to mistake for anyone else’s; it’s not even necessarily to my taste, as I prefer the slightly icy clarity of a Scholl-type voice. Daniels’ voice is more ornamented and romantic.
He was quite trim-looking in a nice, well-fitted dark suit, and I understand he has been doing a bit of personal training to enhance his stage appearance (Deborah Voigt and other large women singers are not the only ones laboring under a requirement to look attractive). He’ll never be a slim or small man; none of the best falsettists ever are. However, he did look very dashing, much to the delight of many members of the audience, and seemed in good spirits during the performance.
His interpretations of “Schlummert ein” and “Erbarme dich” were genuine and touching, perfect proof to anyone who thinks otherwise that Bach’s music can indeed be emotionally touching and moving as well as mathematically beautiful. Both pieces were stunning, although the orchestra seemed to skate a bit on some parts. I’m not sure why; there seemed to be a bit of a rusty honk to some of the lower strings in places, although the upper strings and the woodwinds were clear as a bell.
The second half, devoted to Handel, began with the A major Concerto Grosso (you can find the numbers at the LA Phil’s website) that absolutely delighted me. I think I grinned through the whole thing. It was chock full of everything one can love about Handel — the confidence, the precision, the slight cheekiness, and that gorgeous call-and-response business that reminds me so much of what would with the passage of a couple centuries become American country fiddling. That’s really a good part of the appeal of Handel’s music — the way that it showcases so many features of music that all later forms would grab and run with; you can find the genesis of everything from hoedown fiddles to four-piece rock-band keyboards and R&B chord progressions in it. Handel’s music is like a little complete universe of its own in which you can find all other music; peer closely, and you’ll make out Ashley MacIsaac, Gregg Rolie, and Luther Vandross staring back at you from a sea of faces.
The next piece was one of the Handel Top Ten Hits, “Ombra cara,” which was of course wonderful, although it was most obvious in this piece that falsettists are rowing upstream when singing against an orchestra; Daniels did get swamped by them a bit from time to time in this and other pieces in a way that a tenor or a natural male alto wouldn’t have been. Now that the higher male voices are back in fashion in the world of opera, hopefully we’ll see a genuine altino popping up from time to time and get the opportunity to hear a full chest voice taking on some of these old arias.
The next piece was scheduled to be “A dispetto” from “Tamerlano,” but was replaced by a scorching “Furibondo” from “Partenope,” which Daniels knocked clear to the Moon. The entire audience, myself included, was left in shocked silence for a second afterwards and then began cheering and clapping as if our lives depended on it. To use the jargon of my 80s teenage years, that song kicked major *ss. He was as precise as a neurosurgeon and as quick as a hummingbird for the whole thing, and strong and passionate throughout. It’s not a subtle aria and combines both rapid-fire exactness and full-blown fury, both of which he hit dead center. The orchestra was also dead on, stretching and cutting short everything that needed it, hitting the color and the timing perfectly in all cases. If John Gielgud ever played a part that required a loss of temper onstage, this is what it would be like.
The next was an instrumental piece, the act II passacaglia also from “Radamisto.” This came as a welcome surprise to me, who hadn’t looked as closely at the program as I should have. I’ve been listening to Scholl’s “Ombra mai fu” CD in the car lately, which features this piece. It’s become a favorite of mine as I sail (or more often creep) along the LA freeways, and I was thrilled to hear it live by such a good orchestra. Still a bit of a skate lurking somewhere in the strings (I want to say viola but I could be wrong), but otherwise fantastic.
The last piece on the program was the “Orlando” mad scene, which Daniels also acquitted himself well on. He was at all times a very dynamic performer but still self-possessed. He is very clearly an operatic singer giving a recital as opposed to a recitalist singing opera, and he must be a very engaging stage performer. I hope I have the opportunity to see him live in a full opera someday.
His encore was also from “Radamisto,” and he turned around for the da capo and sang the rest to the rear of the theater, toward the cheaper seats. The people sitting back there had been staring at the back of his head the whole night, and he made a point of singing the second half of the encore directly to them. It was a very kind and thoughtful gesture.
He was available to sign the companion CD to the concert in the lobby afterwards, but unfortunately, I was tired and had to get home to get to sleep, so I wasn’t able to stay. I wish I had, but them’s the breaks when you go to a live performance on a weeknight. I do wish I’d been able to thank him directly for tolerating the necessary fuss and bother (long plane flights, strange hotel rooms, etc.) to share his gift.
So. A wonderful evening all around. Again, I very much look forward to seeing him in a full role someday.
(BTW, I need to get used to the names for the period instruments that aren’t found in modern orchestras or risk losing whatever tiny scrap of musical cred I have. I can’t keep looking at a theorbo and calling it a “sneetch” in my head.)
LA Times Review of the concert